Rarely have I seen a movie that so blatantly screamed ‘undergraduate’ garnering so much attention. Antichrist tells the story of ‘He’ (Willem Dafoe) and ‘She’ (Charlotte Gainsbourg) – the pronouns in themselves tell you a lot about where we’re going here – a couple who retreat to a woodland cabin in the attempt to deal with ‘her’ grief over the accidental death of their baby – during which things take a turn for the grotesquely violent.
To begin with the positive – Antichrist has some beautiful scenes, reminiscent of the work of Bill Viola or Bill Henson. However, this is a highly problematic work. Despite the controversial scenes (which add nothing to the gore-repertoire seen in movies like Saw or Hostel, not to mention Bloodsucking Freaks) for the most part, this is a boring film, slow moving, with clunky and at times clichéd dialogue, and little in the way of narrative pull. The symbolism is massively heavy-handed: the dead son is called ‘Nick,’ the place where evil manifests is ‘Eden,’ dead babies appear and re-appear as a motif. The premise is absurd – who leaves a baby in a room with an open window when it’s snowing outside (a case where the question of realism should be applied not whether the film is ultimately a realist work – it is not – but rather a question of realism of character, given that this film, as a two-hander, is nothing if not an attempted character study)?
All this would be acceptable in a film which was B-grade and/or kitschy, intentionally or not, but in a film with pretensions to profundity it’s merely obvious. Indeed, the opening scene, in which we see the aestheticised death of the infant, juxtaposed with a pornographic encounter between Dafoe and Gainsbourg, accompanied by the banal strains of Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga,’ reminds one of nothing more than this. The gender politics – from a male lead paired with a woman sixteen years his junior onwards – sit, essentially, at or below the level of the rape-revenge fantasy, and the fact that nods are made toward the understanding of the existence of gender politics as such only compounds this issue, acting thus as a disingenuous screen. Indeed, the entire movie, though it features extreme violence toward Dafoe’s character, is a celebration of the objectification of the irrational and evil woman, who, after harming the male subject through the employment of her seductive, perverse and extreme sexuality, admits her blameworthiness and erotically desires her own violent punishment (not to mention nature as the embodiment of feminine evil) – hardly an original narrative. Indeed, there is a lack of originality throughout – the scenes in which the camera enters the incidental landscape, though striking, are pure Lynch; the beautiful sylvan cinematography and colouring are reminiscent of works like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village; while the soundtrack, heavy on the ominous and doom-laden to indicate the intrusion of evil (just in case the audience didn’t get it – spelling out the obvious is a major ongoing issue), also features the creaking sounds of menace used to such great effect in Japanese horror such as Ringu. Oh, and did I mention perhaps the film’s most absurd moment, the talking fox? Or the other contender for that title, the dedication to Tarkovsky?
While Dafoe and Gainsbourg, both actors for whom I have a lot of time, do a fine job with the material they have to work with, ultimately, this is a disingenuous, misogynistic, unoriginal and deeply banal film masquerading as a work with pretensions to artistic merit. Indeed, it could be read as the ultimate challenge of overblown ego – to put material like this out there, and see who, if anyone, will call the bluff and recognise that the emperor’s blatant emulation of Godiva is not shocking, only tedious. For a work which succeeds where Antichrist fails, I’ll take Evil Dead anyday of the week.